COLUMBIA — More than 130 local business leaders attended the annual Economic Outlook Conference on Thursday evening at Columbia College, where national and local business experts gave advice about how to adapt to new trends.

The experts talked about how businesses should handle changes to economic structures and shifting trends in consumer spending. After emphatic applause, local business leaders left the conference with two important lessons in mind: Making a local business a destination for consumers and prioritizing the workforce.

Consumer trends

Sarah Quinlan, the senior vice president of Market Insights for Mastercard Advisors, led the discussion. Quinlan brought a data-filled presentation dissecting different areas of economic consumption, including housing and retail. Her team analyzed spending patterns based of billions of anonymous purchases processed by Mastercard every year.

Quinlan said it's important for the Midwest to rethink how it can promote specialization in a changing economy — one where people spend less on products from once-leading industries such as housing, clothing and luxury retail. She pointed out that department store sales are on the decline, but people are spending more on travel and products promoting a healthy lifestyle.

"Only one kind of clothing saw great increases in the last five years,” Quinlan said. “It’s women’s yoga pants.”

Airlines and lodging have seen major increases in recent years, Quinlan’s group found. She suggested that Columbia business leaders could boost their success by making their businesses into "experiences" to attract people to the area.

To the surprise of the audience, Quinlan said that while the country has seen 4 to 7 percent growth in restaurant sales every month for the past few years, Columbia restaurants saw consecutive decreases.

"This is where you guys are totally away from the entire region," Quinlan said. "Either you guys are the best cooks in the country, or I misunderstand."

Quinlan added that Columbia may need more restaurants for people to try.

Creating a skilled workforce

During a later panel session, several local experts shared insights about building a stronger workforce to improve Columbia business.

“Workforce is the No. 1 issue,” Amy Sublett said.

Sublett serves as the acting director of the Missouri Division of Workforce Development, which is a state agency that focuses on building a better workforce and improving employment within businesses.

Sublett said when many national institutions consider choices for local branches, they start by reviewing workforce data in the communities. Those companies will rule out some regions that don't have the skilled workforce the institutions need. Often, those communities won't even know they were considered. 

Jeff Lashley, the president of Moberly Area Community College, echoed his fellow panelist and said programs offered through the community college could pose a solution. MACC offers students specialized-skills certification training and "in-time training," which offers community college courses to students based on a position that businesses need to fill.

Lashley encouraged business leaders to communicate their needs with the college to aid in training future workers.

Audience response

After the conference, many business leaders lingered to talk to the speakers and seek advice for their own businesses.

"It’s interesting to see the area where we have some potential to grow locally and how we are performing,” said Jennifer Hedrick, the owner of Simon Oswald Architecture said after the conference.

"The panel talked about the workforce development — that’s real concern for the future,” Nancy Fay said. Fay works for the cosmetics company Mary Kay.

This year marked the 12th meeting of the conference, which is hosted by the Columbia Chamber of Commerce and Regional Economic Development Inc.

“The purpose is to give our businesses an opportunity to take a look at what are some economic trends that are seen on the national level and local level,” said Matt McCormick, the president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s important that they know what’s happening of the economy out there, to know if it’s growing, in which direction,” McCormick said.

Supervising editors are Scott Swafford and Ellen Cagle.

  • Haotian is a public life reporter at Missourian. He is a senior studying data journalism. Reach him at, or in the newsroom at 882-5720.

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